One of the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s favorite models was Suzanne Valadon, a working-class teen raised in the Montmartre district of Paris. In his paintings, she’s always softly pretty, vibrant, approachable. Aside from her physical appeal, Valadon was herself a talented artist. Her first serious self-portrait couldn’t have been more different from Renoir’s depiction: She portrayed herself as spiky and tough, with a skeptical look and sharp nose.
That might give you some hint as to why you know Renoir’s work but perhaps have never heard of Valadon. She became an admired professional painter, but she was never widely popular. She was too unsparing, too “unfeminine.” The title of Catherine Hewitt’s biography of Valadon, Renoir’s Dancer, helps place her in the artistic universe, but the book is very much about the Valadon of the self-portraits.
Born in 1865, the incorrigible Valadon was the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid. She became a circus acrobat, then a successful model—and the probable lover of Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. The latter recognized her talent and helped her connect with Edgar Degas, who became her tireless mentor.
She also had an illegitimate child, Maurice Utrillo, an emotionally troubled, alcoholic artist whose charming cityscapes made them both rich. Valadon eventually married one of her son’s friends, who was 20 years younger than her, and the trio lived a tumultuous life together.
You can’t go wrong with material like that, and Hewitt excels at recreating the atmosphere of Montmartre as it evolved from bohemian enclave to tourist nightspot. The reader tags along with Valadon to heady establishments like Le Chat Noir and the Lapin Agile, where she stuns the men with her verve and intelligence. Hewitt introduces us to a frank, generous woman and bold artist who painted more nudes than babies. She ultimately overcame the prejudices: When she was 71, the French nation bought several of her works, and her paintings now hang in museums around the world.